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Mosport at 60: The Track's Official Inauguration With The 1961 Player's 200

Sterling Moss' #1 Lotus 19 at the 1961 Player's 200 (Photo Credit: Unknown Photographer)

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Sixty years ago on this day (June 24th), motorsports in Canada officially christened a grand, new stage for racing. The roaring engines, peeling rubber and the sight of the era’s most sensational pieces of high-speed machinery being handled by brave competitors became a fixture constructed close to Bowmanville, Ontario. Mosport Park or now known as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park opened in 1961 with its first major event held on June 24th on windy, overcast early summer weekend.


Estimated to cost between $600,000 and $650,000 (roughly between $5,250,000 and $5,687,500 in 2021) Mosport Park raceway opened as a much-needed permanent, purpose-built home for sports car and major motorsports in Ontario as well as Canada. In 1961, the only other significant race track operating was Westwood Racing Circuit in British Columbia. Westwood opened in 1959 but would close after 1990 and the land has been redeveloped. Mosport’s 2.459-mile road course configuration remains largely unchanged after 60 years. Prior to Mosport Park, races designed to attract international attention in Ontario were held at Harewood Acres and the Edenvale Airport both converted airfields used for training through the second world war. The 1961 Player’s 200, organized by the Canadian Racing Drivers’ Association, served as the introduction to what would be six decades of action on the 10-turn road course.


Assembled in a pair of 100-mile heat races, the Player’s 200 featured 21 races competing on Saturday for a share of a $10,000 purse. Standing out among the inaugural event’s entry list included Porsche factory driver Joakim Bonnier, 1959 12 Hours of Sebring and 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans co-winner Olivier Gendebien as well as Formula 1 legend Sterling Moss. The late Sir Sterling Moss’ impact on Mosport Park is credited to shaping literally shaping the track having made a recommendation to the layout in its planning stage. The road course’s iconic 5a and 5b section received the name ‘Moss Corner’ upon the track’s opening.


Magazine clipping of Austin Sprite being proudly touted as the pace-setter for Mosport's Player's 200


Being a Canadian race, national talent behind the wheel and car construction would also be part of the Player’s 200. The Comstock Racing Team brought a pair of Sadler MK V race cars. The Sadler Car Company was a race car builder based out of St. Catharines, Ontario and is also historically known for producing Formula Junior single-seat open wheel cars. Powered by a V-8 engine from the Chevrolet Corvette, the #51 Sadler MK V would finish the 1961 Player’s 200 in 5th overall while Bill Sadler had a more difficult Saturday afternoon finishing 14th. Canadian Milt Wright competed in the unique Makins Special for Makins Auto Body based on a Chevrolet Corvette. The car was involved in an accident and failed to finish. Nat Adams piloting a Jaguar XKSS and a young Ludwig Heimrath Sr. was also part of the 1961 Player’s 200.


Fortunately falling into the “built and they will come” mentality, the allure of being in the presence of skilled, world-famous drivers and stunning race cars was immediately intoxicating for drawing an audience to Mosport Park. Initially expecting a paying crowd of 24,500 people, Mosport’s first major event sold 31,180 tickets. In total, about 40,000 were estimated to be in attendance for the Player’s 200. At a ticket price of $2.50, people attending the event demonstrated the mass attraction of sports car racing in Canada. In subsequent Player’s 200 races, this sizable turnout would prove not to be a one-time occurrence. The crowd continued to grow eventually exceeding 52,000 people attending the 1964 event. The popularity of Mosport Park blossomed during and after the 1961 race despite the actual on-track action being quite tame. Supplied with a light green Lotus 19 (also known as a Monte Carlo) powered by a Coventry Climax double overhead cam engine, Sterling Moss would win both heat races and finish by a one lap margin over Joakim Bonnier’s Porsche 718 RS.

 



Left to Right: Nat Adams driving the red #169 Jaguar XKSS, Harry Entwistle's green #132 Lotus 15, #10 Makins Special driven by Milt Wright (Photo Credit: Unknown Photographer)

While overcast conditions for race day did not amount to rain showers, the first major auto racing event at Mosport was dampened by a pair of factors. First being the genesis of the Player’s 200 race itself. The Carling 300 was intended to be the track’s inaugural prestige event hoping to attract many of the major European factory teams with an early June date. This race would be relocated to Mosport from Harewood Acres that held the Carling 300 in 1960 where Roger Penske (at the time an active race car driver) won in a Porsche RSK. However, Ontario’s liquor control board in 1961 forced the event’s title sponsor out of presenting Mosport’s inaugural event. After the loss of Carling, Imperial Tobacco Company’s brand Player’s stepped forward to sponsor the official opener for the track.


Another issue that risked to compromise the success of the first Player’s 200 at Mosport Park was the decision to offer appearance money. Working out to between $300 and $500 per driver in 1961, this payment designed to attract competitors actually repelled several well-known motorsport athletes. The SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) who advocated amateur auto racing forbid and threatened to punish drivers competing in the Mosport race weekend due to the money being offered. The threat of American and Canadian drivers losing their SCCA license played a major part in the rather small 21-car field. Having been set to compete in the Player’s 200 with a Lotus 19 similar to Sterling Moss’ machine, Canadian Peter Ryan ultimately withdrew from the event before the weekend due to SCCA threat. Ryan would compete at Mosport later in 1961 and netted victory in the first-ever Canadian Grand Prix (the event would not be part of the Formula 1 schedule until 1967).


The 1961 Player’s 200 cemented the world-class reputation for what is today known as Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Since the initial sports car event, the track has hosted Formula 1, IMSA, USAC IndyCar, SCCA Trans-Am Series, Export ‘A’ Trophy Series, CASCAR, NASCAR Pinty’s Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has rendered the facility quieter than usual for through the early half of 2021, the venue’s 60-year past continues to forge the future for Canadian auto racing.

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